In the New York Times, Sheryl Sandberg Is Lucky, Men Are Good

In a recent profile, the New York Times takes special note of the good luck Sheryl Sandberg has had in her rise to the top.


What does it take for someone to rise to the top -- the very top -- of a field? Hard work, mentors, connections, brains, charm, ambition -- it's a long list. But certainly one thing that helps very successful people get where they are is the mystical quantity we call "luck."

Luck, it must be said, is a loaded word. Sometimes someone's luck is nothing of their own doing, a result of the privilege of their birth. Sometimes we mean luck in the purest way, the happenstance of sitting next to the right person on a bus. (This sort of luck seems practically mythical; one wonders if it ever happens.) But for many people, "luck" is something of their own making: They work hard, network, self-promote, and so on, and one day, they end up in the right place at the right time and catch their break. Is that luck? Not in the same way, and telling someone who has worked hard that their success is a result of luck is insulting.

This is why a passage in a New York Times profile of Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg's accomplishments just sounded terribly off. Sandberg is one of the most successful women in the entire world. Sandberg is known not just as a talented Facebook leader but as an inspiration and role model. YouTube videos of her commencement address at Barnard and TED speech have gone viral, reaching hundreds of thousands of people.

In short, she has made a sideline career for herself exhorting young women to "lean in" -- to compete and strive in the workforce with a no-holds-barred attitude. For some people, this implies that Sandberg believes women can get whatever they want if they just work harder and believe in themselves more -- that, somehow, the combination of ambition and confidence will melt away the barriers created by years of sexism in the workplace. They say that Sandberg has lived a charmed life, and doesn't give enough credit to the extent that sexism can hold women back, regardless of their attitude. The New York Times summarizes this criticism by saying:

[S]ome say her aim-high message is a bit out of tune. Everyone agrees she is wickedly smart. But she has also been lucky, and has had powerful mentors along the way.

This may just be a "some say" gloss on criticisms of Sandberg, but it's an unfortunately messy summary of her detractors. Luck, after all, is what too many women chalk up their success to, Sandberg has argued. Their male peers, in contrast, believe themselves to be "awesome" -- fully deserving of their success.

The problem with the way the Times framed Sandberg's success begins with the use of the word "but": She's smart, *but* she's lucky, as though this somehow trumps her smarts. Success comes from being smart *and* lucky. I searched through the past five years of New York Times archives to find other instances when luck had been employed to explain someone's success. I found an obituary for an inventor who had "marshaled luck, spunk and inventiveness to fashion an entrepreneurial career that included developing the first commercial frozen French fry"; a Russian billionaire-turned-alleged-criminal whose meteoric rise left you wondering whether it was a result of "genius, luck, ruthlessness, or connections"; and an inventor of medical devices who had luck "like all billionaires." The only two instances I saw of luck gaining a fuller explanatory power was once in the case of George Steinbrenner, whom the author thought quite lucky to have bought the Yankees just before the era of free agency, and Kristin Gillibrand, the senator of New York, of whom Al Sharpton is quoted as saying, "I think Gillibrand either has mystical powers or the best luck I have ever seen in politics." It's rather unfortunate that the one time the Times inadvertently discredited someone's success on account of luck, that someone was the woman known for telling women not to chalk their success up to luck.

Let it be clear: Sheryl Sandberg is no fool. She does not believe that luck plays no role in women's achievements. In fact, she begins her TED speech saying, "So for any of us in this room today, let's start out by admitting we're lucky." Sandberg's message isn't that women can get whatever they want merely by being more ambitious. Her message to women -- privileged, highly-educated, "lucky" women -- is that once you have all those things, you have to stop explaining away your success by crediting luck or the beneficence of a mentor. It's not that these things haven't contributed to success. It's that when you focus on them, you implicitly understate your own abilities.

It may be true that Sandberg gives short shrift to the challenges many women face. But Sandberg is not talking about women as a class, women everywhere. Sandberg is talking to a specific audience: women at TED or women graduating from Barnard. These are women who by all means should be running major companies and organizations -- if not now then in the next few decades. Sandberg may have in mind global gender equality, but her speeches are aimed only at the very elite. Women made up half of all college students decades ago, but still hold only about 15 percent of top corporate positions -- that is the narrow problem Sandberg is focused on.

To make matters worse, the Times throws it in that not only has Sandberg been lucky, she's also had powerful mentors. Again, this plays directly into one of the pitfalls Sandberg has been warning women to avoid: believing that your success is the result of other people helping you out. As with luck, it's difficult to imagine many people advancing as far as Sandberg has without some help from someone powerful.

Additionally, that Sandberg's "powerful mentors" should account for her success is an interesting and odd choice, since it is thought that women have a hard time advancing because they have a harder time finding mentors. Powerful men find young men who remind them of themselves and mentor them. For Sandberg to have found powerful mentors -- Larry Summers, in her case -- is a testament to her abilities and savvy.

Sandberg's achievements speak for themselves. As the Times says, "If all goes well, she will soon become the $1.6 billion woman." We should all be so lucky.

Image: Reuters.